Monday, April 28, 2014

Review: Orphan Train by Christine Baker Kline

Christine Baker Kline tells a moving story of two women separated in age by decades, but joined by experiences of betrayal and abandonment.
  The publisher tells us:
Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse...
As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.
Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life – answers that will ultimately free them both.
Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.
Baker Kline does a masterful job of weaving the stories of Mollie and Vivian, although the book is much more about the older woman than the younger, perhaps because Vivian has already lived her life and her experiences can be seen as lessons for Mollie.  While the younger woman has certainly been shuffled from house to house, the more enlightened views of today's social services afford her more opportunities for success.

The stories of the orphan train children, told in stark detail, are appalling.   Our book group discussed this last week, and to a member, no-one could believe that these children were sent and/or left in the squalor, the degradation and the abusive situations some of them faced. None of us, whether we had children or not, could ever envision treating children in such a cruel and cavalier manner as was told about some of these neglected youngsters in the 1920s.  We cheered for the people who helped right the wrongs, we unanimously denounced the villains.  We questioned decisions made, both by Vivian and by Mollie, but we all agreed that the story was well told, kept us turning pages, and ultimately left us feeling that the resolution, while a bit contrived, was a satisfactory one.  I don't want to do spoilers, but I will say it is a story that weaves injustices of the past with success both past and present.  It highlights glaring lapses that still exist in the foster system today while celebrating improvements and accomplishments.

Although the subject matter can be difficult, the author's use of two perspectives to reflect feelings and emotions gives the reader a chance to evaluate the subject matter clearly and close the book with a feeling of satisfaction.
ORPHAN TRAIN was on the long list of nominees for the Maine Readers Choice Award.  Many thanks to the publisher, Willliam Morrow Paperbacks for making a copy available for review.

Title: Orphan Train
Author: Christina Baker Kline
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks (2013), Edition: Original, Paperback, 304 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Subject: treatment of orphans and foster children
Setting: Maine, Minnesota
Source: Review copy from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? To evaluate it as a possible contender for the Maine Readers Choice Award.


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